ORLANDO - Perhaps the best word to describe the 2018-19 Orlando Magic, who will meet the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, is resilient. Every time their backs have been up against the wall, they have responded, withstanding external criticism and pressure.
Multiple times throughout the regular season Orlando, which won a league-best 17 more games than last year and logged its first winning record since 2011-12, rebounded from poor performances and won significant games that kept its playoff hopes alive. The Magic won in hostile environments on the road, overcame daunting deficits, drilled clutch shots and beat some of the best teams in the league.
The Magic won 10 games when trailing going into the fourth quarter, tied with the Rockets for second most. Only the Pistons won more times when behind after the third.
Orlando won 11 of its 18 contests combined against the Eastern Conference’s top five teams – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston and Indiana. It also finished its home portion of its schedule with nine straight wins at Amway Center.
After Jan. 30, the Magic had the league’s third best winning percentage. They also during this time posted the NBA’s best defensive rating and were one of two teams - Detroit being the other - who ranked in the top 11 in all four of the following categories: opponent second chance points, opponent points off turnovers, opponent fast break points and opponent points in the paint.
Although every victory they recorded throughout the year was important, several of them had greater meaning.
Nov. 4 at Spurs
The Magic started the season 2-6. Most of the losses during that opening stretch were blowouts. They got hammered by the Hornets in the second game of the year, lost by 22 in their first visit to Milwaukee and were obliterated at home by the Clippers, the game that preceded a trip to San Antonio.
The Spurs finished the regular season 32-9 at home. They were one of only eight teams in the league who won at least 30 times in their own building. Winning at AT&T Center is one of the hardest things to do in the NBA.
The Magic, however, weren’t rattled when they stepped into that venue that night. Early on, the Magic were aggressive and eventually built a 26-point lead. Although the Spurs staged a furious late-game rally, the Magic stayed calm and hung on behind clutch buckets from Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.
The next night, Evan Fournier drilled a game winner at the buzzer against the Cavs. Several nights later they won a thriller over the Sixers. From Nov. 4 through Nov. 18, the Magic won seven of nine.
Jan. 12 vs. Celtics and Jan. 13 vs. Rockets
The Magic’s longest road trip of the season, a six-game, 10-day voyage to start the new year, was a wild one. Every time zone was covered throughout the journey, making it even more difficult to get sufficient rest. So, it wasn’t really a surprise that Orlando went 1-5 on the trip.
Returning to Orlando, the Magic were eager to play in front of their home crowd, especially with two of the league’s premier teams, the Celtics and Rockets, in town. The games were scheduled on consecutive nights, too, giving the Magic an opportunity to quickly restore some confidence.
In both games, the fourth quarters were dominated by the Magic. Orlando overcame an eight-point deficit in the final frame against Boston and a 10-point deficit in the fourth against Houston to pull out two impressive wins.
Remembered most from that weekend were Terrence Ross’ clutch shots in each of the games along with Evan Fournier’s tenacious defense on James Harden, who shot 1-of-17 from 3-point range.
Feb. 28 vs. Warriors
Losing to a team that has the worst record in the league is always a tough pill to swallow, especially when you’re in the playoff hunt. That’s what the Magic had to endure when they dropped a heartbreaker to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 26. The good news was they had an opportunity to bounce back and make a big statement with the two-time defending champion Warriors up next.
Trailing by 13 early in the fourth quarter, the Magic stormed back and took the lead when Gordon buried a 3-pointer with 1:41 remaining. Orlando held Golden State to 15 points in that final period, as the Magic beat the Warriors for the first time since 2012.
March 22 vs. Grizzlies
Of course, the Magic wouldn’t have been eliminated from playoff contention if they had lost this game. But, with the circumstances what they were, it only made sense for Orlando to treat its game against Memphis – the fourth game of a five-game homestand – as a must-win.
The Magic were down 90-73 after Chandler Parsons drilled a 3-pointer with four minutes left in the third quarter. At that moment, the idea of playing past April 10 – the last day of the regular season – seemed like a tall order.
Once again, though, the Magic refused to abandon the mission. They just put their hard hats on, so to speak, and went to work, inch-by-inch clawing themselves back into the game. Orlando eventually forced overtime after outscoring Memphis by 14 in the fourth. Determined to not let their comeback go to waste, the Magic seized control in the extra session and pulled out the thrilling win.
March 26 at Heat
Rarely do regular season games actually feel like playoff games. Sure, some games provide more energy and anticipation than others. But, almost never are the emotions the same.
An exception to this general notion came on March 26 – the day after the Magic completed their five-game homestand with an impressive win over the Sixers. The Magic headed to the airport that same night to start a four-game road trip, beginning with a critical matchup against their rivals from the south the next day.
This is the Magic’s 30th anniversary season, and quite possibly never before has this franchise been more locked in, more amped up and more prepared for a regular season game than this one against the Heat.
At the time, Orlando was sitting a half game back of Miami for eighth place. With a win, not only would the Magic jump the Heat in the standings but, even more importantly, would guarantee themselves the playoff tiebreaker should the two teams finish the season with the same record.
It was huge, to say the least, and every coach and player knew it.
Things started rocky for the Magic, who trailed by 14 after the first quarter. Slowly but surely, though, Orlando crept back into the game and eventually took its first lead midway through the third when Jonathan Isaac hit one of his three 3-pointers during the period. A seesaw battle ensued over the next several minutes before Orlando seized momentum and pulled away down the stretch.
April 7 at Celtics
It was 10 years ago when the Magic shocked the basketball world by winning a Game 7 in Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Some feel that was the single most fulfilling victory in Magic history considering the Celtics, who were the defending champs at the time, were the heavy favorites that night.
Although the stakes weren’t nearly as high as that game from 2009, the vibes were similar for the Magic when they were in Beantown this past Sunday. Earlier in the day, the Hornets defeated the Pistons, preventing the Magic from locking up a playoff berth. A loss to the Celtics and the Magic would be in danger of having to play in Charlotte on the last night of the regular season with a win necessary to make the postseason.
A win over the C’s, on the other hand, would mean celebrating a playoff berth at the same venue that the 2009 team rejoiced at a decade ago.
Similar to the game in Miami a couple weeks earlier, the Magic regrouped at halftime after a sluggish second quarter and came out of the break hot, erasing a 13-point deficit. Ross scored 11 straight Magic points during one stretch early in the fourth as Orlando built its lead to 14.
The Celtics, unsurprisingly, rallied, knotting the score at 106 when Kyrie Irving sank a 3-pointer with 2:50 remaining. The Magic, however, stayed poised and outscored the C’s 10-2 from that moment on. Fournier slammed home a go-ahead dunk with 2:02 left and Gordon connected on a cutting layup on Orlando’s ensuing possession.